Update March 2: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have asked the Capitol architect to convert to using as much natural gas as possible in the 99-year-old Capitol Power Plant, to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Their letter went out just days before the scheduled protest of the plant today.

By Diane Porter
Green Right Now

Next Monday, in what is billed as the largest mass civil disobedience rally for the climate in U.S. history, organizers expect thousands of people to join in a protest at the Capitol Power Plant in Washington, D.C.  Hoping to bring attention to the issues of climate change and green jobs to the new administration and new Congress, the protestors are expected from around the country, spurred on by support and videos from actress and activist Susan Sarandon and NASA’s James Hansen.

“We want to send a clear message to Congress and the Obama administration that Americans aren’t satisfied with the action that’s been taken on climate yet,” said Mike Crocker, a spokesperson for Greenpeace. “We need robust policies in place as soon as possible, certainly in time for (the next United Nations Climate Talks) in Copenhagen in December 2009.”

The Capitol Power Plant is the only coal-burning plant in the District. It is a major source of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and soot in a city that has repeatedly been found in violation of the Clean Air Act, according to a story in The Washington Post. Although half of what it burns is coal, it also burns natural gas and fuel oil. In the past, when an effort was made to eliminate coal from the fuels the plant burns, Senators Robert C. Byrd, (D-W.Va.), and Mitch McConnell, (R-Ky.), both coal-producing states, blocked the attempt.

Despite that history, however, the power plant was chosen more for its proximity to Capitol Hill and its symbolic nature. “It’s not by any means the dirtiest or most polluting,” Crocker said, “but it’s Congress’s, and it’s symbolic of the country’s missteps it terms of climate and energy, and the new opportunities we have to right the ship in the next year.”

Protestors plan to disrupt access to the plant by surrounding it and refusing to leave, risking arrest in the process. The organizers’ website emphasizes that it will be a peaceful demonstration, “carried out in a spirit of hope and not rancor.” They are expecting, at last count, more than 2,500 attendees “from the neighborhood, from across the country and from across the world,” according to Crocker. More than 90 different organizations have endorsed the effort, and the event expects Hansen, former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, actress Darryl Hannah, singer Kathy Mattea and James Gustave Speth, dean of Yale University’s School of Forestry to attend. Sarandon is performing and won’t be there.

The Pew Center for Global and Climate Change says that reducing the greenhouse gases that result from burning coal is one of the most significant challenges facing those working on climate change. Coal use now accounts for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But coal is cheap and plentiful, and the political issues surrounding it are deep and multi-layered. Coal plants in the United States are part of the country’s aging infrastructure; a third of them were built before 1970, and just 12 have been built since 1990. However, because of high natural gas costs and the political instability of nuclear power, an estimated 130 new coal plants are somewhere in the planning stages.

President Barack Obama  has made it clear that he supports efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, rely more on clean energy, and create more green jobs. So why such a big statement so early in the new administration?

“Clearly this administration is a breath of fresh air compared to the last 8 years, but there’s no time to waste,” Crocker said. “We of course welcome the priority that the Obama administration has made into climate issues, but there are a lot of powerful interests at play here and the politics are such that you can never take anything for granted.”

For more info see the Capitol Climate Action website.

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